Aims: To face the challenge of decreasing freshwater availability for agriculture, it is important to explore avenues for developing rice genotypes that can be grown like dryland cereals. Roots play a key role in plant adaptation to dry environments. Methods: We examined anatomical and histochemical root traits that affect water acquisition in rice (Oryza sativa) and wheat (Triticum aestivum). These traits and root growth were measured at two developmental stages for three rice and two wheat cultivars that were grown in pots under three water regimes. Results: Wheat roots had larger xylem sizes than rice roots, which potentially led to a higher axial conductance, especially under water-deficit conditions. Suberization, lignification and thickening of the endodermis in rice roots increased with increasing water deficit, resulting in stronger radial barriers for water flow in rice than in wheat, especially near the root apex. In addition, water deficit strongly impeded root growth and lateral root proliferation in rice, but only slightly in wheat, and cultivars within a species differed little in these responses. The stress sensitivity of rice attributes was slightly more prominent at vegetative than at flowering stages. Conclusions: Rice root characteristics, which are essential for growth under inundated conditions, are not conducive to growth under water deficit. Although rice roots show considerable plasticity under different watering regimes, improving root xylem size and reducing the radial barriers would be required if rice is to grow like dryland cereals.